New Research: Appealing To The Center Is Not The Way To Win Elections

Dave Johnson wrote a great piece back in May showing that appealing to the center actually drives away voters. Now he finds more evidence to support his position:

On NPR's Talk of the Nation today, Clarence Page talked with host Neal Conan about the role of independent voters, saying that we might be surprised to learn that candidates who try to appeal to "independents" tend to lose, because they turn off the voters who closely follow and care about the issues.

In fact, candidates who try to "appeal to the center" lose, because this idea of a "center" is a myth. From the transcript:

You know, there is a professor Alan Aramowitz of Emory University, who has been studying this using voting statistics, and he found that the - well, as he put it, in all three of the presidential elections since 1972 that were decided by a margin of less than five points, that the candidate backed by the independents lost. This was - this surprised me. You know, he's citing here Jimmy Carter in '76, Gerald Ford - sorry, Gerald Ford beat - excuse me, Gerald Ford won the independent vote but lost the election. Put it that way, OK.

Most independents voted for George W. Bush in 2000, but Al Gore got the overall popular vote. As you recall, he got the popular vote but not the state vote.

CONAN: Yeah, but that's fudging your statistics a little bit. The guy who got the independent vote got the big prize.

PAGE: Yeah, but still, though, most of the - the one backed by the independent voters, though, did not get the majority of the popular vote. And in 2004, John Kerry, most independents voted for John Kerry, but he lost the overall election.

What does that mean? What it means is that Karl Rove and others, who have often advocated firing up the base rather than reaching out for independents, they've got a point. In some elections, that works. If you fire up your base, get your vote out, it can be big enough that it will overwhelm the opposition and the independents, because independents also tend to have the least turnout, and they also tend to be the least committed, not just to a party but also to - well, less engaged with the whole campaign.

They are joined by Daron Shaw, who was a campaign strategist for George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004.

SHAW: Well, I think the thing that Clarence pointed out that's worth reiterating is that the distinguishing characteristic of independent voters is they're not that interested, they're not that involved, they're not that engaged with politics. So if you're a political professional and you're dealing with finite resources, and you have to make decisions about where you're going to invest dollars, and where you're going to invest manpower, you know, the idea of reaching out to independents, who may or may not show up, and if they do show up may or may not vote for you, can give you pause.

So you know, it's interesting that there's been this movement in the last two or three election cycles, and as Clarence correctly pointed out, I think Karl Rove is kind of given credit for this, although I don't know if he's, you know, the architect or godfather of it; a lot of people who have moved in this direction.

But the idea of sinking your resources into mobilization, which primarily targets, you know, sort of identifiable partisans and appeals to them, that that's become kind of a staple and maybe even the dominant perspective. And I find it kind of interesting that word out of the White House - and you have to read all these things with a dose of caution - but suggests that they're kind of moving in that direction. That's sort of what their thinking is. And I just find that fascinating.

As I wrote in May:

The way to grow your voting base is NOT to try to "appeal" to some group that is not left or right, but is "between" something called left and right. To get more voters -- especially the "independent" ones who won't identify with a party -- is to take stands, be more committed to progressive positions, and to articulate them more clearly.

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